Monday, June 17, 2019

History of My Reading/ This Dancing Balloon with Emerson and Thoreau

In the Knox College spring term of 1967, I took a 16th Century English Literature course from Mr. Brady.  At that time we were both on the Faculty Committee for Student Affairs, and our interactions there could be described as inflaming mutual frustration.  Our conflicts would become oddly defined in public in the upcoming fall term.  But whatever bad feelings there might have been at this point did not spill into this course.

I have two surviving papers from this course: one short, the other longer.  I got an A on both.  Brady even included a pun in his comments on the short paper, which was on a poem by Thomas Wyatt, in which a central metaphor was a filesmith's file.  Along with the grade, Brady wrote: "Far superior to the rank and file."  (He did not however get my joking reference to a contemporary novel I was enthusiastic about: Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.) On my longer paper on Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, he disapproved of the "staccato style," but concluded "it's a very good job."  

Truth is I didn't much care for 16th century literature--but it is interesting that the approach I took to the Faerie Queene was to focus on "innocence as the essence of ideal love," carrying on a theme I followed in 20th century writer Scott Fitzgerald in winter term.  One paragraph is worth quoting to indicate my thoughts and feelings on the subject at that time, and for years later:

"Innocence, openness, gentlenesss, are the qualities of love that make it what it is--the conciliator of disparate elements in human experience.  It must often be a fostered innocence, deliberate, treasured.  And it does not always promise perfection, for love blends the mortal and the immortal, but is not wholly of either.  It is poignant."

The chief element of this course that I remember is an assigned book: The Allegory of Love by C.S. Lewis, particularly the first two chapters, on Courtly Love and on Allegory.  Impressions of these lasted beyond the course.

Now I come to the course on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau taught by Douglas Wilson in spring 1967.  The opportunity to read and study these two writers has had perhaps the most lasting effect on my life of any literature course in college.  I can't imagine my life if I hadn't read them that tumultuous spring.  They were a necessary connection to nearly everything that came before, and nearly everything that would come after.

As with the Walt Whitman/Wallace Stevens course the spring before, Doug Wilson's enthusiasm infused this experience.  I can't read any of these writers--Whitman, Stevens, Emerson or Thoreau--without thinking of Doug Wilson.

My 1967 copy, upon which I scrawled
an Emerson sentence: "Why should I vapor
and play the philosopher, instead of
balancing the best I can this dancing
balloon?"  Good question. My
rueful answer: grades.
But even before his knowledge and enthusiasm was displayed in the classroom, Wilson made this course memorable by the choice of books we used as texts.

Emerson's best known works were his essays, and Thoreau's was Walden.  But the specific books Wilson chose both broadened the view of these writers, and placed their work in context.

Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Riverside paperback edited by Stephen E. Whicher, placed Emerson's major essays in the context of his journal entries surrounding the times of their composition.  The book also included Emerson's poems, which Wilson did not neglect in class.  We probably were assigned the Prentice-Hall volume of Emerson criticism, also edited by Stephen Whicher, along with Milton Konovitz.

Similarly, the Norton Critical Editions paperback of Walden and Civil Disobedience included not only the full texts but excerpts from Thoreau's journals, plus reviews and critical essays, ranging from Thoreau's contemporaries (including George Eliot and Emerson) to modern writers and critics, including Van Wyck Brooks, F.O. Matthiessen, Sherman Paul and E.B. White.

Providing further context was what for me was the most valuable addition: H.D. Thoreau: A Writer's Journal, selected and edited by Laurence Stapleton (Dover, which kept Thoreau's entire published journals in print for years, along with other Thoreau books.)  How thoroughly I consumed this volume is indicated by the profusion of underlinings and check marks throughout.  The idea behind the selection was to highlight entries--some of them quite long--that illuminate Thoreau as consciously a writer.

These kinds of contexts not only informed the main texts but made the course more involving, more personal, and more of an adventure.

Unlike Whitman and Stevens,  Emerson and Thoreau came from the same place at the same historical moment--in fact they were close friends for years, and the younger Thoreau even lived for awhile in the Emerson household.  That historical moment involved the Transcendentalist movement, so we had Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists (Signet paperback) as background (My copy has underlining only in the introduction and first chapter.)

My copy of Thoreau's book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, dates from this time, and it may have been an assigned text.  I also acquired The Portable Thoreau that spring.

My feeling for Emerson and Thoreau was genuine during the course, but my sense of them in history and literary history comes later, as well as the obviously inaccessible knowledge of their role in my personal history.  Surviving papers show concerns somewhat derived from academic questions that were probably prominent at that moment, and an approach that still derives largely from philosophical analysis.

 I have a rough draft and lots of page references for a long paper on Thoreau that grapples with questions and interactions of intellect and feeling, with one sentence I still like: "Reason is that faculty which is quite fond of producing reasons." This concern would thread itself through the spring and well beyond; I'm immediately reminded for example the work of Jung, James Hillman and others, in which intellect and feeling are among the orchestrated elements of the human soul.

 A short paper wound its way through Emerson's essay on Art, with reference to contemporary trends in art, of which I actually knew little.  My final paper on Emerson was more ambitious, returning to the theme of innocence (footnotes include references to a book called Radical Innocence by Ihab Hassan, though I have no memory of it--some credit Hassan with the term "postmodernism"), the nature of good and evil, and Transcendentalism vs. existentialism.  The paper is interesting but mostly an emotional mess, clearly written with a distracted mind and a broken heart. It marks the low point of my spring affair, as well as a surfeit of other influences--the aftereffects of campus visits by Gary Snyder and novelist/activist Mitchell Goodman among them.

 After this course at Knox, I acquired various collections of Emerson, including several old hardbacks: a Greystone Press edition of essays, the Modern Library abridgement of his journals, and a Chelsea Classics edition of Representative Men.   

To a paperback edition of Thoreau: The Major Essays (Dutton), I added new editions of some late Thoreau works: Faith in a Seed (Island Press 1993, edited by Bradley P. Dean), which calls itself Thoreau's Last Manuscript, at least until Wild Fruits:Thoreau's Rediscovered Last Manuscript (Norton 1999, also edited by Bradley P. Dean.)  I also got a few more books on the transcendentalists,  including Philip F. Gura's 2007 history, American Transcendentalism.

I also received (as review copies) several in the series of Yale University Press annotated Thoreau volumes, but I didn't care for the format (two columns of text, with annotations on both sides of them, plus a lot of white space.)  I did hold onto one of them--I to Myself, a selection from the journals.

But my major new adventure into Emerson and Thoreau began when I read a review by John Banville in the New York Review of Books of December 3, 2009. The review began with the greatest opening sentence of any review I've ever read, and quite possibly my favorite sentence ever.  It is: "Surely mankind's greatest invention is the sentence."

I've been wrapping my head around that ever since.

The review was of First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson.  This slim book also became one of my favorites.  And it introduced me to Richardson as biographer.

Over the next year or so I read his big three: Emerson: The Mind on Fire  (U. of CA 1995), Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (U. of CA 1986) and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin 2007.)  They led me as well to Richardson's selections of William James essays and of Emerson's essays, lectures and poems.  All three of the biographies are excellent in approach and as writing.

Emerson and Thoreau continue as living influences among contemporary American writers of various kinds, including the science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, the one fictionist whose books I buy immediately on publication.  In his Science in Washington trilogy (which he more recently edited into a single volume, Green Earth), one of his principal characters stumbled on a website called Emerson for the Day, and so quotations from Emerson and Thoreau became part of the text. (That website didn't actually exist, but for some years afterwards it did, because of those books.  I did a version of it on this site for awhile.) Then when Robinson visited Arcata several years ago, he advised his audience to read an entry in Thoreau's journals every morning, as he does.

There's much more that could be said about the influence of Emerson and Thoreau, and I will have a little more in my post on the upcoming summer of 67. But I will say this much here: in retrospect, it is evident that for me, Emerson and Thoreau were both a bridge from earlier literary enthusiasms, and a counter-example.  They were an American version of the English Romantics, and therefore a link to all that echoed in the Romantics (Wordsworth's "something more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky, and in the mind of man/A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts,/And rolls through all things...")

But Emerson and certainly Thoreau went beyond the pastoral identification with innocence as in Spenser or even Shakespeare, to reclaim nature itself and the beauty and essentiality of the wild in the world and in the human soul ("In wildness is the preservation of the world"--Thoreau.) That notion links them forward to poet-ecologist Gary Snyder and ecologist-poet Paul Shepard, and back even farther than English literature goes, to the Native American and other Indigenous and original cultures developed in the far past.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Daily Lear

verse and drawing by Edward Lear

Cromer in Norfolk, England

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

History of My Reading/ Valjean Memories and The Lit of Crit

Valjean at Knox.  Photo by Leonard Borden
Before we hit the books, a few words about an aspect of the winter 1967 term at Knox that I especially remember.  It was during these months that I spent the most time with Valjean McLenighan.

We'd known each other slightly before that year--we were both in the Whitman/Stevens class the previous spring--but usually in a group.  Then we were both in Macbeth that fall of 1966, of my junior and her senior year, though we had only one scene together, in which I did nothing but gape at Macbeth and his Lady (played by Valjean), along with the other thanes. But we did acquire that bond and familiarity that actors share when they're in the same production.

She was also an active resident of Anderson House, which became the "experimental" dorm for fourth year women, the experiment being the absence of curfews or a housemother.  I got involved in their campaign to resist some sort of re-imposition of restrictions, as the college decided to take the term "experimental" literally, and deputized a stiff-necked  member of the psychology department to study their "variables" as if they were mice in a maze.

In any case, while I was back in Pennsylvania with mono for the first part of the winter term, Valjean was just about the only Knox student to contact me and check on how I was doing.  When I got back to campus, she was the first person to greet me.

Thanks to the mono I still didn't have the energy for much socializing, but we went to some campus events together and had more one-on-one conversations, lingering at a Gizmo table for hours, interspersing serious ideas and distressing news of the day with peals of mischievous laughter.

One afternoon we had outlasted everyone else at our Gizmo table and sat there alone as it got dark.  Eventually Valjean sat up straight and asked, "Shall we to dinner?"  "Let's!" I said, as we both got up smiling.  Val kept beaming--"That was the perfect response," she said quietly.  In that instant we'd both inhabited the same sort of old movie, of bright young things in their tennis whites, with not a care in the world.

The next year Valjean went off to the University of Iowa graduate drama program, and I saw her there several times the autumn after that, when I briefly attended the Writers Workshop.  I was mostly being drafted and sadly was not good company, but she hung in there with me.

I saw her briefly a few years later, when we both happened to be on the Knox campus; she was playing the part of a career woman in real life, all made up and dressed for success, but I could tell her heart wasn't in it.  That, as it turned out, was the last time I actually saw her.  We came close a couple of times, including sometime around 2005 when she came to California, but we couldn't work out the logistics (it's a damn big state.)

Years went by after that 1970 moment, and in the early 1990s she called me up.  She'd just been to a Knox reunion and wanted to organize friends to go to the next one.  Her enthusiasm was contagious but in the end I didn't go. Still, we were in touch by phone and letter and email right up to the time that she was diagnosed with cancer.

Valjean on her last trip to Mexico
We'd talked about freelance writing, which we were both engaged in at the time, and her experience at meditation retreats with Zen teacher Joko Beck, who I knew as the author of a wonderful book, Everyday Zen.  When I was going through a rough stretch I got a package from her.  It was a beautiful candle.

I realize now that she didn't talk a lot about her past, so  I learned much more about her accomplishments, her activism and compassion, and her wide circle of devoted friends from the blog she set up as a focal point for news about her illness.  I found out about her diagnosis from an email she sent out, which also asked that all communications go through the blog, a request that I foolishly honored.  So it was from the blog that I learned of her death in July 2008.  She did not live long enough to see the man she had told me about a couple of years before, Barack Obama, become President. But she lived her last months with the euphoria and anxiety of his first campaign around her in Chicago.

Valjean was in the class ahead of me at Knox and she was fiercely intelligent, so it was awhile before I realized she was about six months younger than me.  She was a presence, a force of nature. Anyone who heard her voice knew she was full of life.

I remember Valjean from that winter term, but I don't remember a thing about the literary criticism course my transcript says I passed (with an A).  Unfortunately I haven't found anything to jog my memory.  A partial draft of something that could have been a paper in lit crit survives, but without indication of what course it was for, if any.

However, literary criticism itself was a major aspect and activity of all literature courses, and of being a literature (and composition) major.  I do remember books in literary criticism that were suggested, assigned or often referred to in college.  And my reading of literary criticism and books in related areas did continue after college, through to the present.

So this will be my post on lit crit, in college and beyond.

First, to locate my era.  At least at Knox College, the trends and virtual cults that overtook and in some ways overwhelmed lit crit in a big way in the 1980s and 90s--the various approaches known as structuralism (and post-structuralism), deconstructionism, semiotics, and more generally as postmodern"theory"-- had not yet joined the conversation, let alone shouted everybody else down.  As I've mentioned before, the New Criticism of the 1940s was still the most influential guide, but different styles that for example looked at the writer's relationship to the times were also in the mix. Analysis from other points of view (political, historical, cultural, economic, class structure, etc) was edging in, and the latest approach of McLuhan and media studies was hotly debated.

All that said, there were literary critics that won respect for their criticism and its eloquence, transcending any affiliation with one label or another. (Many were leftists politically and some were Marxists or communists in the 30s; I doubt we knew much of this when we read them in the 60s.)  In fact they tended to be highly individual, and often employed a mix of perspectives.  What especially distinguishes these works from later lit crit is the quality of the writing.  These books were meant to have some of the literary qualities of the books they were about; they were written be read with pleasure and understood by non-specialists.

What is in those books defined as literature anyway?  How do they work?  How do they fit into the literary landscape and literary history?  How do the various works by a particular author relate to one another?  To their times and beyond? These are some of the questions addressed by the literary criticism that I remember.

My Anchor hardback has no dust
cover and just a blank red surface.
This Anchor paperback edition
has an intriguing cover design.
I won't attempt to develop a hierarchy or history, though I do notice that a lot of the titles I remember best come from the 1940s and 50s.  One that seems likely I acquired from the Knox Bookstore in 1967 is a small, neat 1953 Anchor hardback copy of The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling,  a collection of essays, most of them on American literature and writers.

His essay "Manners, Morals, and the Novel" contains Trilling's most famous phrase, when he defines manners as "a culture's hum and buzz of implication."  I've since added his slim volume, Sincerity and Authenticity, and his final Selected Essays titled The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent. I also have a huge anthology of western literature that Trilling edited.

In his essay "The Meaning of a Literary Idea," Trilling takes on the strict New Criticism of Rene Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature, an earlier lit crit classic, often referred to simply as "Wellek and Warren." I'm not sure I ever had a copy of it until I found a vintage paperback a few years ago.  I. A. Richards is another lit crit elder whose name I heard. His books on literature go back to the 1920s and 30s.

A book often mentioned that I did have (and still have) is The Well Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks, which is chiefly about poetry.  I marked up the opening essay, "The Language of Paradox" and in the next I probably found some answers in the treatment of the play I'd acted in, Macbeth.  

The aforementioned names and titles--and probably others--were given to us as the gods of lit crit.  Northrop Frye's influential 1957 Anatomy of Criticism may well have been in that company.  His name at any rate was familiar enough to me that when I spotted an interesting title on a sale table at Squirrel Hill Books in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s--The Educated Imagination--Northrop Frye as the author made the sale.

I found that slim book very stimulating and generative, so the next time I came across a Frye title, I snapped it up.  After re-reading The Educated Imagination a few years ago I became more deliberate--I hunted down Frye titles online, until I had--and read--(two things that do not always go together, of course) a total of 10 of his books.

Probably the most interesting acquisition was a collection of short pieces entitled Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature which I bought just a few years ago.  Like many books of this kind, the editions available are often library discards.  The one I bought was a 1978 first edition hardback, and when it arrived I was amazed at its pristine condition.  It was from the Barat College library. Barat was a small Catholic college in a leafy and wealthy Chicago suburb, until it went bankrupt and eventually dissolved in 2005.

  This book had been acquired from the University of Chicago Press presumably in the year of publication.  Barat had emphasized the arts, but apparently not the work of one of the 20th century's most esteemed literary critics--for on the Date Due sticker on the back there was not a single name.  This particular book had led a very quiet life on a college library shelf for a quarter century, possibly untouched, yet outlasted the library itself as well as its college.

There were other perhaps less exalted names I learned then, probably from essays on specific writers, such as Scott Fitzgerald or Wallace Stevens. Alfred Kazin made his mark with On Native Ground, a study of American prose from 1890 through the 1930s, with an emphasis on realism.  He continued writing up to his death in 1998, including memoir and history. One of my favorites is the late Writing Was Everything (1995), an autobiographical celebration of an era and community committed to literature.  I have 7 of his books, plus a biography.

Malcolm Cowley, a poet, critic and literary historian, wrote mostly about writers and writing of the modern era.  An extra element of fascination for me was that Cowley was originally a western Pennsylvania boy (like me), who grew up to know writers (Hemingway, Faulkner, Kerouac) and critics (Edmund Wilson, F.O. Matthiessen and his Pittsburgh high school classmate Kenneth Burke.) He started out earning his living writing rather than teaching: one of his personal histories is titled --And I Worked At the Writer's Trade.  I have six of his books.

Cowley not only knew writers personally (including Hart Crane) but he engaged them in dialogue about their work--particularly Faulkner.  He was also one of the American pioneers of what we know now as the interview--the public dialogue with writers--especially in the Paris Review Writers At Work Series.  He edited and wrote the introduction to the first collection. (With some effort, I collected all ten of the published volumes.  Subsequent interviews live only in the physical magazines and online, as far as I know.)

Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle introduced many modernist writers to American readers in the 1930s.  I don't recall him being among the favored critics in college, and I didn't read him then (except in relation to Fitzgerald.)  I've acquired several collections of his bracing and highly opinionated pieces by decade, as well as a more general collection.  (My copy of The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects came to me from the Arts, Literature and Sports Department of the Birmingham, Alabama Public Library via Better World Books.)

Many of these critics concentrated on the modern period of their own lifetimes, and since this was the most recent period we really studied in college, I've remained interested in exploring these writers in depth.  So I also have several books by Hugh Kenner (The Pound Era, The Elsewhere Community, A Homemade World, etc.) and Richard Ellman ( Golden Codgers is a more recent acquisition, but in 1967 I had and would revere his biography of James Joyce.  I had also added novelist Anthony Burgess' study of Joyce, titled ReJoyce, to my Joycean collection. There would be several more Ellman books added to that group over the years.)

What's worth emphasizing, given what happened to Lit Crit later, is that many of these figures were not primarily academics, and they did not write only criticism. Edmund Wilson was a magazine editor and a reporter--he traveled the U.S, by train in the 1930s, reporting for The New Republic.  Malcolm Cowley listed himself as a literary historian and poet before critic.  Richard Ellman and Hugh Kenner were biographers (Kenner wrote a major book about Buckminster Fuller.) Alfred Kazin edited several books, and wrote autobiography as well as literary history. And so on.

Some novelists and poets wrote interesting lit crit, both the famous (Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, Stevens, Updike etc.) and the lesser known.  In fact, poet Randall Jarrell is perhaps better known for his criticism--though he seems unjustifiably overlooked in both categories these days.

I haven't totally limited my subsequent lit crit reading to this early 20th century era by any means.  I have studies and biographies of writers who wrote before and after the moderns, including some written in recent decades, such as works by Louis Menard, Margaret Atwood, James Wood, Denis Donoghue, Octavio Paz, Italo Calvino and Ursula K. LeGuin.  That's apart from works on literature from elsewhere (or very much here: Native American writers) and what gets called genre literature. Needless to say, there's no death of the author idiocy among them.

I also haven't mentioned here the works on specific writers or periods that were assigned or suggested for specific courses at Knox such as 16th century English literature, or such studies that I've included in earlier posts.

I've also read enough to realize my comparative ignorance of even the usual western tradition, so I have a few more extensive literary histories.  My favorite of these is Literature and Western Man by British dramatist, novelist and critic J.B. Priestley.  It is a briskly written series of essays from a somewhat covertly Jungian point of view.

In fact, I have more lit crit books than I could ever possibly read, partly for one reason.  For years the Humboldt State University Library held an annual book sale, with most of the books being their discards.  (Perhaps they still hold it, but I am afraid to know.)  For the last hour of the sale, buyers could fill shopping bags with books and get them all for one price.  I kept my avarice within decent limits until the years the library started shedding books by the hundreds and thousands.  They had to make room for computers and cafe areas, and were depending more and more on online resources.  Books just got in the way.

The last sale I attended was truly scary.  I saw what looked like the entire works of authors (William Dean Howells was one I remember) stripped from the shelves and sold off.  By the end of the sale the dregs included hundreds of books of literary criticism, literary history and biography, mostly published before 1970.  I filled up several bags full of them, and they now line my shelves, or are in piles atop them or on the floor, all with their white Dewey Decimal ID stickers with the big black x through them.  Among them are several gems, a few are pedantic twittering but many are serious works, analyzing and celebrating writers worth reading--and remembering.

Needless to say, this kind of literary criticism--and literary culture--are relics of a bygone age. And so, I suppose, am I.  But you knew that already.

Now that I am no longer a student, or much of anything really, I read literary criticism, history, memoir etc. for the pleasure, challenge and inspiration of reading it, without the necessity of retaining any of it afterwards.  Remembered consciously or not, it may still nourish the soul.
Lit crit has it dangers.  While it can illuminate, it often distorts and simply denigrates.  It sets up orthodoxies (which change, but not often within four years of college) and hierarchies.  It can use ideology not as a perspective or starting point but as a litmus test.  And as an academic industry, it too often misses the point.

There is in lit crit, as almost everything else, a pack mentality, so that books and writers become defined by a generation of critics. This discourages students and others from reading frowned-upon books and authors.

I began discovering literature in my Catholic school days, so I was immediately familiar with banned books and suspect authors (really most of them except for Cardinal Newman.)  Even though I was on guard against this on any grounds in college, I nevertheless was heavily influenced in my reading choices by these judgments, especially when they were, in a sense, the correct answers on graded tests.

So in addition to the lit that academia had not caught up to (from the 1950s on), there were writers from the past I learned to scorn and ignore, including Dickens, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Frost and many others.

Books could be tainted by criticism of the author's character or prejudices, which is a more complicated issue.  Racism and other "isms" are often evident in texts and pointing out instances of them is worthwhile, though evaluating them is trickier.

How much an author's personal behavior and beliefs should influence reading is a vexing question, and distortion or disproportion is part of it.  As Alfred Kazin (among others) suggests, writers were often prejudiced as well as cruel, malicious, mendacious, snobbish and arrogant--and so were their critics.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

History of My Reading/ Winter Dreams with Scott Fitzgerald

Although we agreed on a number of things, students I knew at Knox College in 1967 had a few points of opposition.  Besides more consequential conflicts, one was the Beatles vs. the Stones.  Another was F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. Ernest Hemingway.

To Stones loyalists, the Beatles were too superficial and naive, simplistically idealistic and romantic, too elaborate and pandering.  Their Stones on the other hand were primal and earthy, and recognized the power if not supremacy of the dark side of human nature.  Hemingway adherents felt more or less the same way about Fitzgerald.

The opposition was itself simplistic and superficial in many ways.  But in our early 20s, the end of our partial protection from the determining power of the outside world hovering over the horizon, we read for signs, for clues, for answers, or at least ways to be.  Every book was a guidebook to the future, though in an obscure language and with lots of filler.

Old books as well as new music offered interpretations of the world but more than that, they suggested new paths, or confirmed and defined our feelings and beliefs, providing us with something--images, characters, metaphors, catch phrases, melodies--we could use in action and defense.

Hemingway was the preeminent figure of the writer even in the 1950s when we were growing up.  He was on the cover of Life magazine in 1952 when I was six, and again in 1960.  I remember having read the short novel that took him to the height of his fame in the mid-50s: The Old Man and the Sea, before I saw the 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy.  I read his memoir of Paris, A Moveable Feast, probably at Knox, and I recollect reading In Our Time there and admiring it.

But my serious immersion in his work would happen only after college, first in 1969, when I read his First 49 Stories accompanied by oreos and California white wine as I lay on a mattress in a former kitchen pantry in a Berkeley house, covered with a baking soda paste, a supposed hippie cure for poison oak.  Then in Cambridge and back in Greensburg in the 1970s, partially inspired by the post mortem publication of his unfinished novel, Islands in the Stream.

On the other hand, when I was born F. Scott Fitzgerald had been dead for a half dozen year.  His reputation had faded quickly by the 1930s--about as fast as he achieved fame in the 1920s. Even in his lifetime his books were mostly out of print.  However, after his death in 1940, his literary status rose again in the 1950s, and the public began to rediscover him, both in his writings and his life, throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

I likely read something of his in high school, enough to recognize him in the 1959 film, Beloved Infidel (probably on TV), which chronicled his final years in Hollywood with the entertainment writer Sheila Graham.  He was played by Gregory Peck, one of my favorite actors (the film was made the same year as On the Beach.)  I remember getting inside Peck's doomed, brooding stares into space as Scott, which the girls in high school tended not to interpret correctly.

In 1962 a film was made of Fitzgerald's last completed novel, Tender is the Night.  I saw it on television early in the summer previous to my junior year of college in 1966-67, attracted as much by the lead actor Jason Robards. Jr. who I'd admired in several viewings of A Thousand Clowns (1965.)  The movie used a single line from the novel ("It's about half-past one... It's not a bad time.  It's not one of the worst times of the day") and turned it into a catchphrase, which I adopted for awhile.

When I came down with mono during Christmas break in Greensburg and was told I'd miss the beginning of the winter 1967 term, I came up with the idea of doing an independent studies course on Fitzgerald, so I could use the enforced time at home.  I don't remember why I chose Fitzgerald, except that I probably had a paperback collection of his stories with me, and had read enough of them ("The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" in particular) to be intrigued,  which is not to discount the residual effects of those films. While I was still in Greensburg, Doug Wilson agreed to be my adviser on this project.

I don't remember reading these stories during my hospital stay (I do recall reading John Barth's new, highly praised and huge epic novel, Giles Goat-Boy, straight through, and forgetting everything I read the minute I put the enormous book down.)  But I do recall reading Fitzgerald's stories at home.  I'm not sure about the novels.  In any case, it appears I acquired them that year, in the Scribner Library paperback editions.

Upon my return to campus, I got the New Directions paperback of the crack up, a collection of Fitzgerald's essays, plus excerpts from notebooks and some letters, edited by the literary critic and long-time Fitzgerald confidant, Edmund Wilson (I thoughtfully dated my purchase as February 1967.)  I got the Dell paperback edition of Fitzgerald's letters, edited by Andrew Turnbull. I remember especially his letters to his daughter, Scottie.

I definitely used two biographies: Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (this bio was also a Scribner Library book, an exact companion to the novels)  and The Far Side of Paradise by Arthur Mizener (in a unique Houghton Mifflin Sentry cloth-bound edition that, true to its intent and claims, has held up very well over half a century.)  I also had the Prentice-Hall selection of essays about Fitzgerald, which Mizener edited.

I evidently read Lionel Trilling's essay on Fitzgerald in his book, The Liberal Imagination, which I acquired. I suspect I consulted other sources in the Knox library. I know I read the alternate version of Tender is the Night, edited by Malcolm Cowley from revision notes left by Fitzgerald. (The main difference is placement of the opening section.  Most but not all editions today keep to the original version.)  I probably saw the collection of essays edited by Alfred Kazin in 1951, which more or less started the upward swing of attention to Fitzgerald, along with the Mizener biography.

By the end of the term I had produced a long manuscript which covered Fitzgerald's entire opus, though I believe it did so through more detailed treatment of at least three of his four completed novels.  Unfortunately for me, the manuscript in its blue binder has disappeared.  I lent it out once that year and forgot to whom; it was accidentally found in a pile of magazines in the Williston Hall lobby and returned, only to be lost again.  So I have only scattered memories and the notes and underlinings in the books themselves to suggest what those pages said.

Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920, and together with his popular short stories, it made him famous at the age of 24.  Andrew Turnbull wrote of this book, "as a picture of American college life it has never been surpassed."  I think I sensed that if this were true, there was a prime opportunity for a new college novel that reflected the great changes on campus beyond  1917 when Fitzgerald dropped out of Princeton, or even 1942, when Turnbull himself graduated from Princeton.  The GI Bill and the Baby Boom, among other cultural phenomena, transformed higher education beyond the province of Ivy League affluent white males.  My college experience in the 1960s--even back then--was greatly different, though I did recognize elements of the youthful search for identity and meaning.

Even though Fitzgerald's own college experience was a little earlier, this novel (and his early short stories) became emblems of the 1920s.  And there were discernible parallels with the 1960s: disillusion with a warfare society, a rebellious new hedonism, changes in sexual mores, and the sense of a generation gap with a distinct self-identified Younger Generation.  There was a common alienation from the established political, economic and cultural order. The most vocal elements of both the 20s and the 60s young saw themselves as a generation, distinct from what came before.

The Lost Generation emerged just as standardized education across the country took hold and the consumer society began: consumer credit, advertising and with radio a diminishing of regional differences and a national consciousness, with national brands and products.  Describing the most rebellious, Malcolm Cowley observed, "Feeling like aliens in the commercial world, they sailed for Europe as soon as they had money enough to pay for the steamer ticket."  So began the expatriate 20s.

By the 60s of course, the consumer society was even more extensive and dominant. There were differences in response--the 60s generation was probably more political, more like this generation became in the 30s.  There was also the feeling of doom in my 60s generation shared with the Lost Generation, and a sense that we weren't going to live long.  The post-Great War generation felt they'd inherited a bankrupt civilization, while we saw we were inheriting as well a ruined planet.

While in the end both decades became known for their excesses, they were also propelled in large part by ideals, both visceral and thoughtful.  "We were young, we were irreverent, we were arrogant," Abbie Hoffman summarized the 60s, "but we were right."

In any case, what I saw in Fitzgerald's work was also a theme of the 1960s: the desire for fulfillment, in life and society, expressed for example in romantic union and realizing potential in art and life.  It was the conscious quest to maintain and renew spontaneity, a direct relationship to the world, against the ravaging forces that poison and paralyze with despair.  It was an assertion of innocence against cynicism and corruption, and a desperate embrace of idealism and hope. Sometimes defeated, often self-defeating, Fitzgerald's characters became mythic in their fates.

This struggle often began from a place I knew well--like Fitzgerald, from a provincial upbringing (in his case, Buffalo and St. Paul) with a Catholic background defining a moral perspective.  In any case, this is likely the direction I took in my paper--especially in the section I recall most clearly.

I was especially pleased with writing the section on Fitzgerald's most neglected novel, The Beautiful and Damned, which was his second.  If he narrated a struggle to maintain and educate innocence in college in his first, in this novel his protagonists are taking that struggle into their first confrontations with the world in their 20s.

One thing I remember doing is following certain imagery throughout the novel.  I believe I'd followed water imagery in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man for my Modern Fiction course in the fall.  This time I followed variations of "clean" as an image for innocence as well as beauty, as one seems to depend on the other in this narrative.

Notes and underlining in my copy of The Beautiful and Damned suggest that I caught onto other themes.  The male protagonist's name is Anthony Patch, and I heavily underlined a passage in which Anthony refers to "the sense of life as a mysteriously correlated piece of patchwork..."  And his thought that he isn't a realist.  "No, only the romanticist preserves the things worth preserving."

Judging from underlinings in one of the biographies, I traced incidents in the novel to the riotous exploits of Scott and Zelda in the early 1920s.  Anthony Patch is quite different from Fitzgerald however, and while Gloria is partly a glorified Zelda, she is also less complex.  It's never quite clear whether they are meant ironically or sincerely (probably both, at different times), or whether they simply personify and test an idea, a theme.

In examining Fitzgerald's other novels and his stories, I had the analyzes of published critics to consider.  But at that time very little was available on this book, apart from the consensus that it is a muddle, a transition from the mostly autobiographical Paradise to the transmutations and mythic themes of The Great Gatsby. And it is these things.  As a story it is awkward and the characters are maddening at times.  But what I found, and find again now, is that it contains complex observations and some beautiful and courageous writing.

What did I find to say about the book then considered a Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby?  I know I agreed with that assessment: it is an indictment of America through the corruption of its dreams and destruction of its natural legacy, as well as a tragic view of human life, at least in the determinative epoch of money.  Yet the dreams remain its most memorable feature.

Probably I considered Fitzgerald's short stories, "Winter Dreams" (which he said was the first draft of "the Gatsby idea,") and "Absolution," meant for a time to be Gatsby's back-story.  I may not have known of Fitzgerald's devotion to T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," but I couldn't have failed to notice its imagery in "Gatsby" (although some of it is also found in H.G. Wells, a writer Fitzgerald greatly admired in his "Paradise" years.)

But I am certain that I noticed this passage in the Turnbull biography: "In 1934 Fitzgerald would say that never had he tried to keep his artistic conscience so pure as during the ten months of writing Gatsby.  Before beginning it he had reread the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, and Conrad's dictum that a work of art should carry its justification in every line had been his guide."

Conrad again.  I remember reading that preface then, which is itself the purest expression of a certain approach to fiction as has ever been written.

There is some highlighting in my copy of Gatsby, but not much.  How can you select sentences in a book that carries its justification in every line?  There's a gold line beside the paragraph on the last page about the "Dutch sailors" who first gazed upon the American continent, " (no mention of Indians--here as elsewhere, Fitzgerald partook of the casual racism of his times): "the fresh green breast of the new world.  Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house..." It ends with the contemplation of those European eyes, "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

And earlier, each line highlighted in the paragraph about Tom and Daisy, who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness..."

But I'll bet in my paper I emphasized two sentences from the first two pages of the book: Nick Carraway, explaining why he tends to reserve judgment, adds: "Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope."  And Nick's impression of Gatsby and his "extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness..."  That's the carry-away.

It is Fitzgerald's best structured book and his richest in theme and meaning.  But especially, large sections of The Great Gatsby remain, word for word, sentence for sentence, among the most nearly perfect pieces of writing I've read.

But was it even Fitzgerald's best novel?  Upon publication, The Great Gatsby was widely praised, though it did not sell particularly well.  His next novel, Tender is the Night, published almost a decade later, was not praised, sold badly, and was quickly forgotten.

Its literary reputation soon began rising, and by the 1960s some critics ranked it ahead of Gatsby. Today, even more do. I'm sure I did not go that far (and still don't) but I recall exerting considerable effort defending it in my paper.

Fitzgerald made his living as a popular writer, mostly by short stories in large circulation magazines.  In his novels there remained a tension between his artistic efforts and his crowd-pleasing instincts.  From the partly satiric religious imagery applied to the rituals of the rich on a Riviera beach in the opening pages, his emphasis in this book was more fully artistic, though perhaps not so obviously as in Gatsby.  It is a longer book with more characters, and a more complex structure--meant to be more of a Vanity Fair than The Heart of Darkness.

I knew that the expatriate life the books describes derived from the people surrounding Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy, and I acquired Calvin Tomkin's book about them, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, when it came out in 1971.  It was around that time that I more consciously collected books on Paris in the 1920s, with a growing emphasis on the artists and poets.

But the protagonist, Dick Diver (I'm sure I made much of that "diver"), is a psychologist, caring for his mentally ill wife Nicole. This reflects Fitzgerald's experience as Zelda slipped into mental illness.  Diver's attempts to heal Nicole, and to redeem his aimless friends, constitute his heroism, but he fails to survive the ordeal intact.  When he loses his vitality and self-discipline, it is the final end of innocence, yet even that is ambiguous.

The last section of The Great Gatsby begins with Nick Carraway's memories of returning from college by train to the Midwest.  The elusive magic and mystery, the beauty he recalls were easier for me to feel, as I was in the midst of similar experiences.  He even mentions Union Station in Chicago, the starting point for trains to Galesburg.  Returning from vacations, there were often other students I knew scattered through the train, eager escapees from the constraints of family and the selves they had shed, who would find each other and gather in the club car.  Once I was welcomed into a group of faculty on their way back.  The lights in the train brightened, as we moved through a softening landscape.

Fitzgerald captured and described the ineffable beauty as well as the moodiness, confusion, delusions and ardent emotions of being young.  I can forgive myself for focusing on this aspect of his work, especially since his ability to evoke it remains unique.  But he saw more, and all of his books end sadly.

Probably Fitzgerald's best known quote is almost always cut off before its meaning is made clear, and its context is seldom named.  It comes from the second paragraph of his 1936 essay "The Crack-Up," one of several magazine articles he wrote on the subject of his own nervous breakdown.

The most quoted section is this: "...the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."  But the rarely quoted sentence that follows is this: "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Fitzgerald read Keats and knew of his similar idea of "negative capability."  But he took it further, to define a certain kind of romanticism that is more than a perspective.  It is a commitment.

I finished my paper, and put away the books.  It was months later--perhaps that summer or the next fall--that Fitzgerald's direct influence showed up in a piece of my writing.  That spring of 1967 I became involved in a brief but intense love affair, that, as the saying goes, ended badly.  To the usual emotions of being left waiting past dark on the Gizmo patio with "a comical look on my face" like some young Rick Blaine in Casablanca, I had my first taste of finding myself an incident in someone else's relationship.

The young woman in question was a professed romantic, a Keats ("the holiness of the heart's affection") and Fitzgerald partisan; I recall that she was particularly taken with the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby shows Daisy all his beautiful shirts, and she is overcome.  Perhaps that was part of the motive, plus the triangle aspect, but when I wrote a short story about this affair, I deliberately adopted a kind of Nick Carraway voice for the narrator.  The difference was that it was my narrator's affair of the heart he was observing.  I tried to be as precise and economical as The Great Gatsby.

This was the one story of mine that a few people remember, that the New Yorker fiction editor wrote to me that they could "hardly bear" not publishing, called "Diamond in the Sky" (another glancing reference to Fitzgerald.)  Re-reading it recently, I was impressed by how thoroughly I transmuted the actual affair, and layered questions of faith and community that weren't Fitzgerald themes.  It has a Fitzgerald kind of ambiguity, though without nearly the same depth.

 (I also found a note, which indicates that the narrator's early remark-- that his mother had told him that fiction is that which is not true-- came from something David Axelrod said.  It resonated with me because I remembered that I startled my fourth grade teacher who asked the class for examples of opposites, and I came up with "fact and fiction." I learned of course it's a more complex relationship, as did my narrator.)

Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Theresa Russell in
The Last Tycoon (1976)
Fitzgerald was working on another novel, The Last Tycoon, at the time of his death.  I don't think I dealt with the completed sections of it in my paper, but I did read them around then, and again later.  The writing has a charm like the early pages of Gatsby and Tender is the Night.  The text as published includes his extensive notes for the unwritten chapters, including the ending.  But the most convincing version that completes the story was the 1976 film adaptation written by Harold Pinter. It was the last film directed by Elia Kazan.

This The Last Tycoon failed critically and at the box office.  But when I saw it on a cable TV channel I loved it.  It stars Robert De Niro in a unique role in his career, that of the boy genius moviemaker Monroe Starr, a character based on Irving Thalberg, the legendary MGM impressario.  Fitzgerald was himself almost unique among novelists in becoming a student of film when he went to Hollywood to write screenplays, as so many novelists did. Fitzgerald's fascination with Hollywood was already evident in Tender Is The Night.

 This movie version is rich in detail and insights about moviemaking and the movie business in the 1930s sound era of the big studios. The cast is full of famous actors, future and past.  I saw it again recently and still enjoy it.

Scott Fitzgerald's image since the 1960s probably reached its apex shortly before that film, but with another movie: the 1974 lavish Hollywood version of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, Bruce Dern as her husband Tom, and Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, the narrator and participant/observer.

 (After the casting was announced but probably before the film was released, I was one of a group that had lunch with director Joan Micklin Silver, who would soon go on to successfully adapt one of Fitzgerald's short stories for television.  We were suggesting our own ideal casting of the Gatsby movie, when Silver said that she would have cast Bruce Dern as Gatsby, and Robert Redford as Tom.  A Hollywood impossibility, but a provocative bit of casting--which was a particular Silver talent.)

The movie, criticized as "lifeless," did respectable business, and after a brief vogue in 1920s fashions, the Fitzgerald boom began its decline.  I still have a few books from this period: Crazy Sunday: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood by Aaron Latham (1972 paperback), F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald: Bits of Paradise (1973), a collection of previously unpublished stories by both of them, and especially one slim collection of critical essays edited by Kenneth E. Elbe in 1973 (F. Scott Fitzgerald, McGraw Hill's Contemporary Studies in Literature series.)  These essays are by critics who were just a bit older than me, and it's interesting to see how often their readings comport with what I remember about mine in 1967.

 These days however it seems that Fitzgerald is chiefly remembered for his drunken sprees.  In this age they seem inexplicable unless seen as expressions of a disease, an addiction.  Granted that they were pathetic and, especially in what they did to his health, tragic.  Yet for someone with such natural ebullience and such powerful feelings and acute sensitivities, the intensity of writing novels (never as lucrative as stories) would naturally entail powerful reaction.  (The depression after finishing a book is now a known phenomenon among writers.)  That's an element seldom mentioned.

For all the dissipation, the sense of waste that haunted his later years, consider that it was only five years between Fitzgerald's college novel and The Great Gatsby. His entire writing career was scarcely more than twenty years.  He'd lived haunted as well with serious chronic conditions that might have included tuberculosis.  His character Anthony Patch cavalierly says he doesn't expect to live past 40.  Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

June Blooms

Two views of the Buddleia globosa in front of our house, which attract butterflies and passersby with phone cameras.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Blue and Missy

Blue, looking at me and beginning that eye-blink by which cats signal affection

It's been a little more than two months now since Blue and Missy were taken away forever.  They officially belonged to a young family across the street, but they'd pretty much lived on our back porch.  That family moved to another part of California, and took the two cats with them.

young Blue
Blue was a part of my daily life for a long time.  He showed up some five summers ago, and kept coming back.  We didn't know where he was from, and that--plus another crucial error--probably encouraged him to return even more often.  Blue--the name I chose for those blue eyes--began to gain weight in the area that suggested pregnancy.  Alarmed by this, I started feeding "her."  Very soon we learned where his official home actually was, and the fact that he was male.  By then he was expecting kibble in his bowl on the porch.

Blue was not shy with people.  He cultivated each generation of nearby student renters--especially the females--and probably was given a half dozen names over the years.  (His official name is Richard, which I could never bring myself to use.)  He had a range for his wanderings, but he often wound up sleeping here on the porch, sometimes in the daytime and sometimes all night.  I could see him curled up on the chair just below my office window.  He and I sat together there, sometimes at night.  Once we happened to both be looking in the direction of a shooting star.

Blue knew us, and even if across the street, would come over to escort us to our door as we returned from walks.  Once when we returned from a week or so in the Bay Area, I opened the car door to see him waiting on the sidewalk.  He knew my car and on many other occasions he greeted and escorted me.

That family also had a black and white female cat.  For years she stayed on that side of the street.  We could see her with Blue when he returned to their yard.  Eventually I saw her making some tentative steps down our driveway, then hurrying away.  Then she started coming onto the porch, and pretty soon she had her own bowl.  Margaret named her Missy.

Blue and Missy tussled a bit but they definitely were a pair.  Blue was bigger and cuffed her, which she ignored, but when Missy finished her bowl and nosed into Blue's, he always gave way.

 Apparently Missy hadn't been too fond of the big dog of her official household, and two young children probably didn't help either.  She carved out her spots on the back porch--a hideaway and sleeping spot under a table, and an unused plantless pot for the rest of the time.  The more Missy stayed, the more Blue did.  He had his spots on the other side of the porch, on and under the outdoor furniture.

They presided over the backyard from their positions on the porch.  Other cats came through the yard, eager for their approval.  It was their Garden of Eden, and sort of mine, too.  "With two cats in the yard..."

They settled into this arrangement around the time that our cat Pema was in her final months.  (Blue was sweet on Pema, and snuck a kiss whenever he could bolt inside.  He managed a final one at the door when she was very weak and thin.) After Pema died, being with these cats and taking care of them was more than a comfort.  Just looking at them, watching them on their separate tours of inspection, etc. was nourishment.

We knew they were going but not when, until the last few days, when the big moving van showed up.  The last night on the porch there was a full moon.  I sat outside to look at it, and Missy jumped up into my lap.  She'd only recently begun to do that.  Some minutes later, Blue jumped into my lap as well.  Missy was by then totally relaxed and she didn't move, even when Blue was partially on top of her.  For the first and last time I had them both in my lap at the same time, in the slanting moonlight.

Margaret took this shortly before they were taken
away.  Missy is in her accustomed pot but Blue
is uncharacteristically close to her, and in the sun,
which he didn't usually like.  I guess they knew
something was up. 
In some respects, it was stranger to lose them in this way.  It was sudden and complete.  Though the cats remained alive, Blue and Missy ceased to exist the moment they were taken away.  No one will ever call them by those names, which they knew and responded to.

Now no cats come through the yard.  There seem to be none roaming the neighborhood anymore.

It is still impossible to open the back door, to take a walk and return unaccompanied, to take out the recycling which Blue and then Missy helped me do, to look out a window to the porch and the back yard, or from the front across the street, without being aware of their absence. I wonder about them--I worry especially about Blue, a cold weather cat who now must endure 90 and 100 degree days--but we will probably never know anything about them.

I have these photos and fleeting visual memories.  But nothing can even suggest the feeling of Blue's brown beige bulk suddenly leaping into my lap, rubbing his head under my chin, and crawling up my arm and around the back of my shoulders, his fur against my neck.